What Happens During a Top Secret Background Check? 

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Posted by: David Garcia November 14, 2023

National security-related jobs may require applicants to agree to a background check. Security clearance is perhaps self-evident for intelligence and military positions but can cascade down to contractors and third-party agencies, too.

There are different levels of clearance, including Secret and Top-Secret, and these look at all aspects of an applicant’s background, including personal life, associations, financial data, employment history, and any criminal record.

These checks are non-negotiable; the job specification or advertisement typically states the requirement for a top-secret examination and review.

So, what happens during a top-secret check?

Understanding a Top Secret Background Investigation

There are three levels of security clearance: confidential, secret, and top secret. 

Security clearance only applies to jobs that fall within the remit of the federal government or a governmental agency, but this also includes people like contractors.

An applicant cannot determine the appropriate level of clearance or initiate the process. It is up to the recruiter to evaluate the level of security clearance required based on the job level and its responsibilities and duties.

For all clearance levels, expect a credit and criminal history check. For Top Security clearance, the investigation includes verification of citizenship for the applicant and their family and authentication of education and employment history.

For Top Secret clearance, investigators interview people who know the applicant, including neighbors. Checks are made of public records for evidence of divorce, bankruptcy, and any court litigation.

Candidates are interviewed personally and have the opportunity to correct any inconsistencies between the record and their personal account. They’re also subject to a polygraph test.

A Sequence of Interviews 

The process for a top-secret background check begins with an employer’s request based on the specific position. 

Applicants complete a Standard Form 86, and essentially, this requires complete information, including education, employment, addresses, and travel history. The form also includes neighbors and family details.

Investigators examine all the information on the form. An applicant’s employers, landlords, and previous neighbors will be interviewed; sometimes, relatives will also be contacted for an interview.

The idea is to gain information, insight, opinion, and perspective about the applicant.

Background Checks

When it comes to background checks in general, not every check is relevant to every job; circumstances dictate which are the most appropriate depending on what you want to find out. There are many benefits to running a background check on a candidate, and they can save employers from making costly mistakes. It’s important that employers ensure they are following all relevant laws when they conduct these types of checks.

There are different types of background checks that collectively verify almost all the content on an applicant’s CV or application form. 

  • Criminal History: Most prospective employers aren’t going to be concerned about a speeding ticket or other minor motoring offense. However, financial misconduct, a crime involving dishonesty or deception, substance abuse, or convictions for gambling debts, might indicate an untrustworthy character, addictive traits, or a potentially volatile personality. Offenses from many years ago may not be relevant, but a criminal background check can yield results that are always worth knowing before an applicant signs on the dotted line.
  • Employment Verification: Lying, or embellishing employment records is surprisingly commonplace. Fabrication might not involve employer identity but could center on the duration of employment or the seniority of the position. Hiring someone without sight of an accurate employment record can lead to bad decision-making, which can have serious repercussions commercially and even impact staff safety, so it’s important to always treat employment verification as a standard part of the hiring process.
  • Identity Verification: In the modern digital age, verifying identity is a requirement in many scenarios, and employment hiring should be no different. The internet has made it much easier to create a fake persona; confirmation of identity should be the first verification an employer undertakes. If the identity is fake, there’s no need to consider past employment and education records or other checks.
  • Educational Verification: This check ensures all educational certificates and awards are genuine. Some candidates will bring documentation to their interview, but an employer should never accept these at face value as they’re easy to fake. It’s necessary to ask the applicant for their written consent for this check: stating this on the job description can help put off candidates who intend to falsify information.
  • Financial and Credit History Checks: The trigger for this check is usually a role that involves either handling money or access to sensitive financial data. A debt history or poor credit rating might suggest a candidate could be vulnerable to temptation. Equally, a role that demands credit control or financial strategy doesn’t sit well with an applicant with a poor financial record of debt and mismanagement.
  • Drug Screening: This check is typically triggered by a job that involves driving, operating machinery, or roles in healthcare where the candidate will have access to medicines. These screens are current, so they don’t show a history of drug use or substance abuse; convictions for these will show up on a criminal record check. Employment drug testing requires the applicant’s express permission and should be made clear at the outset of the recruitment process.
  • Reference Checks: Reference checks are all about asking the right questions. Sometimes, it’s easier for an independent and experienced professional to tease out the correct information to help an employer make an informed decision.

Polygraph Examination 

Polygraph examinations are typically required from applicants for Top Secret jobs in addition to a personal interview. These are necessary for top-secret jobs within the main U.S. intelligence agencies. Polygraphs are also called lie-detector tests.

The polygraph measures alterations in blood pressure, heart rate, skin conductivity, and respiration. Changes to these vital signs might suggest that a person is trying to be deceptive when presented with certain questions.

The person conducting the polygraph must analyze the results; this isn’t a black-and-white test. The context is also relevant.

Final Thoughts

There are so many benefits for employers using background checks. Recruiters can avoid some common mistakes in candidate checking and save time during busy hiring periods. 

What shows up on a background check can make the difference between a hiring win and a recruitment disaster, so a professional background checking service can help provide complete peace of mind.

Streamline your recruitment process. At ScoutLogic, we make this process simple. Get in touch today to see the difference it makes in your hiring process. 

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